Reimbursement Update: The Customer is King
Customer service is king in the durable medical equipment business and there are many reasons why this is true. Competing on price isn't an option when reimbursement is controlled by insurance payers, and that leaves customer service as the main area where companies can differentiate themselves from the competition.
Unlike many other industries, marketing of home health care products isn't confined to sales pitches designed to win over the person who will actually receive the company's products or services. The heart of the durable medical equipment business is in renting equipment, and patients trust their doctors and other health care professionals to make decisions about which company will provide that equipment. In essence, every new order brings with it two customers to satisfy-the patient and the referral source. And while it is true that customer service often starts with a phone call or a fax to the aptly named customer service department, there can be no doubt that every department within a durable medical equipment (DME) company is actively engaged in serving the company's customers in one form or another. With these truisms in mind, let's look at how a home medical equipment company can put a winning customer service plan in place that will make it the envy of its competition.
Let's start where the order starts, with the intake or customer service department. Customers, whether patients or referral sources, are looking for same basic things when they make a call to your company to place an order or inquire about a product, fast, efficient and knowledgeable help. In order for them to come away from the process with feelings of satisfaction you will need to make sure certain essential components are in place.
1. Answer the phones promptly.
Never let the phone ring more than four times before it is answered and don't let your phones roll over to another department within the business where employees may be ill-equipped to answer the questions typically posed to customer service representatives.
2. Make it quick and easy for referral sources.
Request only essential information from referral sources when they call to place an order. Don't request information you can look up later on your own like UPI numbers. If the referral source is amenable to faxing information you can make the process extremely easy for them by developing fax order forms that let them fill in the basic information needed for intake, and check boxes for the equipment being ordered.
3. Offer customers a well trained staff.
Customer service representatives should undergo extensive and ongoing training so that they understand the qualifying guidelines for equipment; are knowledgeable regarding what products your company carries; and can help the patient with basic troubleshooting information if problems arise. Also, consider providing customer service representatives with cheat sheets so that they can expertly answer the myriad of questions they receive on a daily basis.
It is no good if your customer service department handles the order expertly, only to have the process break down during the delivery of the equipment that was requested. Let's take a look at the hotspots for customer service in the delivery area.
4. Get it there quickly.
Sure, there are times when you have to prioritize deliveries, but time is of the essence to many of your referral sources, particularly those responsible for discharging patients home from inpatient facilities. Make sure routing processes are efficient, and that vehicles are stocked with commonly requested equipment so that deliveries can be dispatched to delivery personnel in the field.
5. Emphasize patient education.
Making sure that patients and their caregivers have a good, basic understanding of the equipment provided to them can head off the frustration that occurs when patients don't understand how equipment works. Remember that the addition of medical equipment to a patient's home can often be disconcerting, leaving patients and caregivers overwhelmed and less able to absorb the instructions that are offered during delivery. Give patients and caregivers equipment education handouts that they can refer to later on to remind them of the basics that were covered when the equipment was delivered.
Customer service representatives should undergo extensive and ongoing training so that they understand the qualifying guidelines for equipment.
Along with the intake department, your company's sales representatives are the face of customer service to referral sources. To a large extent, how your company is perceived by referral sources depends on the success of your sales department's dedication to customer service.
6. Emphasis on communication.
Sales representatives should make sure that they are continuously communicating and eliciting feedback from referral sources regarding the products and services provided by the company. Some referral sources have definite preferences for specific equipment brands; others need to be kept up to date on what is available. Even more commonly, referral sources may have preferences for how they wish to complete the intake process. It is the job of the sales representative to bring feedback to company management so that a successful customer service program can be put into place.
7. The sales representative acts as a personal liaison to the referral source.
No company runs glitch-free, and problems do arise from time to time. When problems occur, referral sources are likely to feel more satisfied if they have a go-to person within the company who can help cut through the red tape, and get a problem resolved quickly. Treat every referral source as a VIP by framing the sales representative as their personal liaison and dedicated troubleshooter.
8. Provide resources to referral sources.
Naturally, referral sources are focused on caring for their patients and not on the ways and means of reimbursement for durable medical equipment. The sales representative should be able to provide the referral source with the resources they need to navigate the ordering and documentation requirements. Providing basic information listing equipment qualifying criteria and guidance on certificates of medical necessity (CMN) completion can help the referral sources get their jobs done more easily and with less frustration over the paperwork associated with the reimbursement of medical equipment.
It is up to management personnel to set the tone and create a culture that emphasizes the importance of excelling at customer service. Indeed, the lion's share of responsibility for a successful customer service program falls to those who are charged with leading the company.
9. Respond to and resolve customer complaints.
Ideally, customer complaints will be resolved before managers need to get involved; however, this is made more probable if the company has a clear complaint resolution policy in place. It also is important that customer complaints and their resolutions are logged so that management can spot and address any trends that may be occurring.
10. Consider adding value added services.
If your aim is to make your company stand head and shoulders above the competition in the area of customer service, consider offering services that aren't routinely offered by all home medical equipment providers. These services can include offering sponsorship of, and expert speakers for, patient support groups; disease management services to chronically ill patients; and outcomes tracking for referral sources who may otherwise have to collect this information on their own.
11. Maintain experienced staff.
Customers, whether patients or referral sources, will be more satisfied by services that are provided by well-trained employees. In the end, the success of your customer service program comes down to every employee understanding their job and doing it well. Place a heavy emphasis on training staff members, and then protect your investment by taking the appropriate steps to retain high performance employees.
12. Promote teamwork and a culture dedicated to outstanding customer service.
Encourage all your employees to think outside the box and suggest ways to improve customer service. Above all, make it clear to everyone within your organization that management considers excellent customer service to be a key to the success of the company, and that a successful customer service program requires the participation of all the company's employees working together.
This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of HME Business.